Why has the ISO collapsed?

Submitted by martin on 16 April, 2019 - 2:58 Author: Martin Thomas

On our last count, Stephen Wood’s piece on the collapse of the USA’s International Socialist Organization was the most-read of Solidarity’s articles on our website.

In the next issue of Solidarity we hope to have further coverage from one of our people who is in Chicago for a while, and will have a chance to talk face-to-face with ex-ISOers and other left-wingers who’ve been able to observe the ISO up close. Chicago was the ISO’s main base.

As yet, there are many questions about the ISO collapse to which we can’t even guess answers. It’s a strange business.

The French Trotskyist group which is now Lutte Ouvrière collapsed in 1950. But it was very small and political conditions were very adverse. Six years later people from the 1950 group came together again to restart collective activity, and the group continues to this day.

Gerry Healy’s Workers’ Revolutionary Party collapsed in 1985. But it had imploded politically a decade earlier, coming to rely on money from the Iraqi and Libyan dictatorships. A number of fragments tried to sustain continuator-groups.

In Italy in the early 1970s there were far-left groups, highly active, with thousands of members, and sometimes daily papers and radio and TV stations of their own - Lotta Continua, Avanguardia Operaia, PdUP, and Potere Operaia (which mutated into Autonomia Operaia).

They all collapsed. Lotta Continua wound up in 1976 after reaching an impasse over the competing claims of “identity politics” and coherent organisation. The others were all gone by the early 1980s.

They had had unrealistic “ultra-left” outlooks in the early 1970s. They thought they could dismiss the mass Italian Communist Party (by then de facto social democratic) as an outdated rump. When AO, PdUP, and others ran as a coalition in the 1976 elections (and that move in itself was a step back from their earlier “ultra-leftisms”), they got just 1.5% of the vote and saw the CP increase its vote sharply (to 34%).

They were all more or less “soft Maoist”, some of them what French leftists called “Mao-spontex”. Their theories were an incoherent mix of enthusiasm for the Cultural Revolution in China, “Third Worldism”, and “spontaneism” or quasi-anarchism.

They had no stable body of theory which would enable them to adjust to mistakes and to survive big disappointments. They would have been dismayed by the downfall of the “Gang of Four” in China (1976) and the outcome of the Stalinist victories in Vietnam and Cambodia. They all, to one degree or another, tended to substitute street-fighting for politics.

Repression speeded their decline: many leaders were jailed or had to flee to France or Canada. But the essence of the collapse lay in the fact that all groups subsisted on an improvised collection of enthusiasms in place of a coherent theory with a well-traced tradition and line of development, and a strategic overview about transforming the existing labour movement.

The ISO until its collapse it was the most active group on the US revolutionary left, with maybe 900 members. The US labour movement is in a bad way, but the popularity of general socialist ideas among young people in the USA has risen; and more US workers were involved in work stoppages in 2018 than in any year since 1986.

Not an obvious time to give up on a decades-long project of building a socialist organisation.

I know a bit about the ISO’s sister group in Australia, Socialist Alternative. Both groups are splinters (though at different times) from the international network centred on the SWP in Britain.

S Alt has built itself into the biggest group on the Australian far left by a tenacious focus on running regular stalls and meetings on campuses. As far as I understand it, the ISO has done similar.

S Alt defines itself as not “democratic centralist”, because (it says) it’s too small (maybe 300-400 members) to make “democratic centralism” meaningful. That argument seems to depend on interpreting “democratic centralism” as the SWP-UK model: all members are obliged to pretend in public that they agree with the majority “line”, little scope for debate outside prescribed pre-conference periods.

S Alt in 2013 welcomed a small Castroite group, RSP, into membership, on the basis that ex-RSPers could be open in public about their differences with the S Alt majority.

In practice, ex-RSPers have not been vocal. S Alt has little culture of public debate.

At its public meetings I’ve had uptight, angry responses when I’ve raised mild questions. (To be fair, that’s often from young organisers, no doubt nervous about “their” meeting going off piste, and more experienced members can be more open).

The ISO-USA’s regime, as far as we can make out, has been similar: more civilised than the SWP-UK, but recognisably of the same sort.

John Passant, a long-time “semi-detached” member of S Alt, wrote when resigning in 2013 that “part of the culture in the organisation doesn’t seem to be about Marxism but more about action”.

That is a parallel with the Italian far-left groups of the 1970s, though on a very different form and scale.

ISO and S Alt had and have a “tradition” to draw on – from the SWP-UK. But that “tradition” is full of unaccounted-for twists; and in any case both ISO or S Alt have done little to educate members in the tradition, or to explain where, in fundamentals rather than tactics, they diverge from the SWP-UK. In the post-collapse discussions, the references are only to a vague idea of “socialism from below” rather than sustained theory.

Both ISO and S Alt have and had many well-read intellectuals. But their organisations, as organisations, have been held together more by “action”, tactical recipes that “fit the mood”, catchy slogans, than by theoretical tradition.

In Britain in recent years we have seen three large splinters from the SWP – Counterfire, ISN, and RS21, all of them with talented people – collapse or dwindle into near-invisibility, and surely in part because they based their existence on tactics rather than principles.

Has something similar happened with the ISO?


Submitted by martin on Thu, 18/04/2019 - 15:45

S Alt has published an article on "why we need to be organised". The article does not mention the ISO collapse, but presumably is a tacit response to it. We've commented before on what we see as inadequacies in S Alt's previous explication of what building a revolutionary party is all about. The new explication adds a new dimension of inadequacy.

It cites, as models of what a revolutionary socialist organisation is good for, these two cases:

"In the early 20th century, the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World led the first mass struggles against racism and war, defeating conscription and building unity between white and immigrant workers. In the great radical movements of the 1960s and ’70s, it was the strenuous organising of Communist Party members that made the Australian working class among the most militant and socially conscious in the world." No mention of what Trotskyists have done.

So the revolutionary socialist organisation is seen not in terms of a programme, a "memory of the class", a political tradition, an evolving body of revolutionary theory - but only in terms of energetic and militant organisation.

The praise for the Communist Party is particularly revealing.

True, in the early 1970s, the CPA became perhaps the most "left" left-Eurocommunist group in the world, with some internal life, and a semi-demi-quasi-Trotskyistic Left Faction.

But that whole period culminated in the CPA union leaders diverting and demobilising the great mass strike triggered by the Kerr Coup of 1975, those same union leaders only a little later devising and sealing the union-ALP "Accord" which wrecked Australian working-class militancy, and the Left Faction quickly dissolving into nothing.

In other words, all the "good bits" of what the CPA did were fatally vitiated, on the political and ideological front at least, by its politics.

We need good activist organisation, but more than that, we need politics and theory. And if S Alt presents the case for itself just in terms of being a good organisation to push along general militancy, then, given its still relatively small size, in case of any disappointment its members are likely to think: what's the point?

Submitted by Boyd (not verified) on Thu, 18/04/2019 - 23:16

Great historical points regarding CPA, especially the 1970s/ 80s regarding the Trotsky tendency, and the capitulation to the ALP Accord. I raised this matter with Hal Greenland apparently an early Australian Trotskyist, and he refuted that Laurie Carmichael ( recently deceased) who as I understood was a Trotskyist, later a ALP architect of the Accord.
The points you highlighted regarding SAlt as a " militant" organization, is true, though as you indicated lacks theoretical and political education/ debate.
On a side note, though related, I rang the Brisbane contact from SAlt to get information on up coming events, which I was interested in attending. I was assured there would be contact, regrettably nothing.
It might be a long bow but I mentioned AWL, and yourself, so whether this was a factor in the silence.
The relevance to the demise, splintering of ISO, is particularly pertinent with your critique.
The issue as I see it, is cutting through to members and potential SAlt members, to get what identified as critical needs to building a enduring a relevant revolutionary party.

Submitted by martin on Thu, 25/04/2019 - 21:36

Hi Boyd - thanks for the comment. I don't think Laurie Carmichael was ever a Trotskyist. He was a CPAer from a teenager and a leading CPAer at the time he helped set up the Accord. Laurie Short was a Trotskyist who then became a Labor right-winger and a supporter of the Accord in old age.

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